Granite Chief

16 Apr 2002 - by George Sinclair

Last Sunday I got a leave of absence from father duty for the day and decided to go ski up a mountain. Being that Squaw Valley is only 90 minutes from my home, I decided to try Granite Chief. Although I have been skiing at Squaw Valley for about 25 years now, I have never been to the top of Granite Chief, even though a chair lift goes just a few hundred feet below the top of it. I decided that it would just be too easy to hike from the chair lift to the summit. Therefore I decided to climb it from the Squaw Valley parking lot, avoid paying the $56 for a lift ticket, and have an opportunity to explore Squaw Creek canyon.

I quickly found the start of the trail next to the firehouse and began hiking up it at about 9:20 am. The sign next to the firehouse said it was 5 miles to Granite Chief and 7 miles to Tinkers Knob. There was no snow near the parking lot, and the trail remained mostly snow-free for about the first mile. Due to the lack of snow, I started out wearing my hiking boots and carrying my T3 ski boots. After I climbed about 1,000 feet I switched to my ski boots. By this time I had lost sight of the trail and just worked my way up the canyon that Squaw Creek flows down as best I could. High above me, on the south side of the canyon, I could see the Squaw Valley tram. After skiing a short distance I encountered a creek that was somewhat difficult to cross. However, after finding a log I could walk across, I was able to continue skiing up the canyon. Eventually I put my skins on and followed a snow-covered service road that led up towards Shirley Lake.

Before long I found myself near the Shirley Lake ski lift. Worried that I might get hassled by the Squaw Valley Ski Patrol, I endeavored to stay in the trees at the north end of the canyon. This tactic seemed to work, and I was able to stay away from the downhill skiers at Squaw for the entire climb. Eventually I reached the ridge on the northeast side of Granite Chief. The wind was vicious on the ridge, which I followed upwards towards the summit. The final 300 feet was too steep to ski, so I strapped my skis onto my pack and walked the last stretch to the top which I reached at about 12:45. The views from the top are great. Although it is now mid-April, I could see snow covered mountains everywhere I looked, and a number of them contained impressive cornices. To the east I could see a good portion of Lake Tahoe.

After spending about 20 minutes on top, trying to get out of the wind, I headed down the southeastern ridge. After descending about 300 feet I put my skis back on and surreptitiously crossed into the Squaw Valley ski area and worked my way up to Emigrant Peak. Due to the high winds the Emigrant chair lift, which is close to the top of the peak, was not running. From the top of Emigrant Peak I had a good view looking back towards Granite Chief. A very large cornice hung off the eastern edge of the peak. As I worked my way down across the rocks to where I had left my skis, a ski patrol person drove u p to me on a snowmobile. He inquired if I was skiing the PCT, and then warned me not to go into the ski area. After he left, and is no longer in sight, I ignore his warning and ski down into the Squaw Valley resort, which had been my plan from the start. I'm not exactly sure what legal right they have to exclude me from the area anyway, since it is my understanding that much of it is Forest Service land.

After a brief stop at the Gold Coast Lodge, I continued on down the Mountain Run to the parking area where I had left my car. Although this is a ski run I have done many times over the years, it is the first time I have done it on cross-country skis. The snow conditions were good, and I was very happy with how my relatively new Fisher Europa 109s handled. I was able to push them in and out of parallel turns almost as easily as I can on my downhill skis. It only takes me about 15 minutes to go from Gold Coast down to the bottom. I reach my car at about 2:30, and by 4:00 I am back at my house in Roseville enjoying a cold one.

Richard Steele adds:

Actually, much of Squaw Valley is privately owned. The company takes the concept of "private ownership" very seriously.

Steve Eckert adds:

> Actually, much of Squaw Valley is privately owned.  The company 
> takes the concept of "private ownership" very seriously.

They sure do. I phoned up a few years ago and got the skinny: You can cross from the backcountry ONTO their land, and ski down without any legal problems. You CANNOT go the other direction! They do call the sheriff, and tickets are issued, when they catch people leaving the ski area boundary. The peak is not in that boundary.

The trail you were trying to follow actually goes up through the cliffs. You did what I've done, skirting the Shirley Lake area, and probably we both inadvertently trespassed.

Sugar Bowl, on the other hand, is leased land and they are required by their lease to allow backcountry access. It's perfectly OK to ski south to Squaw from there. The Judah lift has one-time tickets for those who want to skip climbing the first hill of the traverse.

Rob Langsdorf adds:

You say that they ticket people leaving their boundaries. But doesn't this only apply to you if you haven't bought a lift ticket? I think one of the standard ways of doing Granite Chief is to ride the tram up. Do the peak and go on to Tinker Knob. Has this changed.

Owen Maloy adds:

I understand that there is a Placer County ordinance against downhillers skiing in closed areas. It does not apply to legitimate backcountry skiers, who presumably know what they are doing, unless they start from within the lift-served area.

Mono County has a similar ordinance. On the front side of Mammoth Mountain you see signs warning that skiing out of bounds is illegal. On the backside the signs do not seem to include any legal threats, probably because the backside is in Madera County.

At Mammoth, if you ski out of bounds, it is wise to reach an understanding with the ski patrol. Locals do it all the time. The patrol worries that some downhiller might get lost and go towards Red's Meadows. This happens several times a year.

Steve Eckert adds:

>You say that they ticket people leaving their boundaries.

That's what they told me on the phone, and in person when I tried anyway.

>But doesn't this only apply to you if you haven't bought a lift ticket?

Ski patrol didn't give a damn that I had a lift ticket on my jacket.

>I think one of the standard ways of doing Granite Chief is to ride the tram up.

Yes, but in the summer only, according to the snarling enforcer.

PS: I didn't look like a novice. I had climbing skins on, and an ice axe strapped to my backpack. It was 2 or 3 years ago.


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